A Recollection of Myst and Storytelling

So Obduction (which I helped Kickstart along with thousands of others) will be out this month (never mind, the release date is July 26th August 22nd areyoukiddingme – oh well).  Huzzah!  The trailer came out a while back, which psyched me up even more for the game.  It’s made by Cyan, creators of one of the most successful games in the 90s and one of my all-time favorite series of any media – Myst.

In honor of the company’s new release, I decided to replay a few of the older Myst games.  I’ve always found the concept of this series unique, even to this day.  It’s probably one of the few games that I love that is driven more by plot and setting than characters.  Although the characters themselves are fairly messed up, the reason they behave this way is because of the main plot device – the (supposed) ability to create worlds using an ancient language.  I mean, imagine if the world you created for your novel was REAL (or an Age, as they’re called in the game) and you could GO THERE and anything you wrote CHANGED IT.  God-complex inevitable, right?

So when Myst came out in the 90s, it was a phenomenal success.  While games of its caliber had been on the market before, Myst was the first that hit the right combination of puzzles, intrigue, and world-building.  The Ages were gorgeous (Selenitic was always my favorite), the music haunting, and the entire game had that ‘strange familiarity’ feel as soon as you started playing – you recognized everything, but had no idea why they were there.  Why is there a rocket, a clock tower, a library, and a ship all on the same island?  Of course, the real plot draw was the red and blue pages – Sirrus or Achenar, who do you choose between two cunning masterminds, mad in their separate ways?  In the end, Myst was a game about finding out not ‘why’ you were on the island (it didn’t matter anyway), but what the island was and choosing a path when you got there.  The objective of the game was temptingly vague until the very end.

Myst was a turning point in how people perceived games, and set a standard for all puzzle games to come – including their own.  The sequel, Riven, while visually even more stunning with its archaic/vintage/steampunk details, was the start of Myst’s decline.  It was a great game, and successful, but did not hold the one main detail that made Myst, well, Myst – that is, the ability to go do different Ages (except a couple for brief visits, not even really any gameplay).  Although you still had choices to make (although your objective was clear) and puzzles to solve, something felt amiss while playing Riven.

As the games continued to be released, their popularity plummeted, most unfortunately.  Perhaps it’s because Ubisoft took over the third game’s publication and rushed the franchise, but starting at the third game the series began to lose its charm.  The good thing about Exile was that it brought back traveling to different Ages and unveiled some history of the main characters.  The puzzles in Exile were a bit more frustrating than Myst or Riven, but in that “I’m over-thinking this, aren’t I?” way rather than genuinely frustrating.  It was, as usual, visually gorgeous and in the end you had a choice to make about a character who had been wronged in the past.  Still, Exile never quite held the intrigue that Myst did.  There were far fewer familiar elements to the game, making the worlds more ‘alien’ than Myst, and unlike Myst you had a clear objective, not a path to choose, at least until the end.

Revelation is where, I thought, the series completely fell apart.  I blame Ubisoft again, as they actually developed this game rather than published it.  Long story short, I only finished this game thanks to a walkthrough.  The puzzles were frustrating beyond my patience, and there were more ‘sci-fi’ and other-worldly elements that brought the plot completely out of its original design.  There was only one key plot point to this game, and that was the redemption of one of the former antagonists.  Other than that, I didn’t feel as though Revelation expanded on the Myst universe or the central characters at all.

Uru (more a side story than part of the core series, but I’m counting it) and its expansions (Path of the Shell and To D’ni) technically came before Exile and Revelation, but I never played these until after I finished those two.  Cyan back in control at this point, and it shows.  This was the first Myst game since, well, Myst that brought back everything I loved about the series.  I understand it wasn’t very successful financially, but the feels I got while playing it reminded me of playing the original Myst.  You had backstory to a central character, history of a central race and their atrocities, visiting different Ages that brought awe (like stepping out of Gahreseen’s small fortress for the first time), chilling music, vintage/steampunk mechanics, and puzzles reminiscent of the first Myst.  While not the most well-received game in the series, I still enjoy playing through it about once a year.  About the only thing missing was a path to choose – there is only one ending to this game, unlike its predecessors.

You can currently play Uru for free online, but the game play is slightly different than the traditional format.

Last is End of Ages.  It is the conclusion to the series, and one last chance for anyone to claim the power of writing Ages – at a price that, if you didn’t play Uru, was discussed at length in this game.  It was a decent game – not quite as good as Myst or Uru, but not near as bad as Revelation or even Exile.  It honed in on the elements of Myst that made it good and added a few new tactics in how to solve puzzles.  For the most part there was no ‘path to choose’, but in the end you had to make a choice similar to that in Exile.

I do have a point besides summarizing the games (although I could go on).  For me, Myst was an inspiration on how stories can be told – and not told.  While the main objective is to unlock the story through solving puzzles, often times those puzzles were part of the story – they told the story itself (Path of the Shell and Uru were particularly good at this).  In the games were the world-building fell apart, I always felt like I was just solving a puzzle for the sake of the puzzle, without getting that tidbit of story to go with it as a reward.  Or, even worse (especially with Revelation), I just felt like I was solving someone else’s problems, that the puzzles were there to be inconvenient, not drive the plot.

Writing a story in of itself can seem like a puzzle sometimes, especially when figuring out how all the plot points are going to come together in the end and, more importantly, if they’ll make sense when they do.  As an author, it’s your responsibility to make sure the points do conjoin at the end and in a way that makes sense.  But for the reader, your audience, figuring the points out is part of the experience, just like solving a puzzle is part of Myst, but really only pays off when you have a reward (story) to go with it.  A reader doesn’t expect all the answers in the first few chapters in the book, but the questions have to be intriguing enough for them continue your story.  The ‘puzzles’ in the story, once solved, have to contribute to the plot.  If they don’t, the reader can get bored with situations that don’t drive the story, and even a good story can falter if hours of reading amount to nothing.

For me, Myst, Riven, and Uru had fantastic stories whose worlds were built through the puzzles.  Each time I solved a puzzle, I wanted to move further, to find out more about what these characters were doing, to find out more about the world they lived in.  A novel should be no less engaging.  Every time something in your plot is unveiled or solved, give the reader a reason to read further.

Okay, time to go squeeze in a game of Riven before Obduction comes out! (looks like I have plenty of time).



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